In August, a British man was sent to jail after defrauding two women of over £300,000 ($455,300) through online dating sites. He had convinced them that he was a diplomat and that a US marine general had fallen in love with them, causing one woman to pawn jewelry, empty her life savings, sell her car, and take out loans to help this general move to the UK. She got nothing.
In 2011, the Internet Crime Complaint Center estimated that the online dating scamming “industry” was worth over $50 million, but it’s likely much higher than that, due to the difficulty of making a good estimate. People are often ashamed to come forward and admit that they’ve been duped. It’s not a good feeling to have been taken advantage of, and a scheme that’s so obvious in hindsight is even harder to admit to.
Don’t become one of these numbers! If you date online, take precautions to protect yourself. Here are six things to keep in mind to help you spot and avoid scammers on online dating sites.
Know if You’re at Risk
Anyone can be the target and victim of these scams—men, women, young, old, gay, straight, white, black, Asian, Hispanic… no one is off limits. But the FBI states that women who are “over 40, divorced, widowed, and/or disabled” are prime targets for scammers. If you fall into this category, be especially wary of people that you meet through dating websites. Online dating can be difficult for women, and scammers only add to the problem, so be vigilant when you’re meeting new people.
The AARP also says that seniors are a common target of these scams. Again, both men and women can and have fallen victim to online dating scammers, but women tend to be targeted more aggressively. Interestingly, the AARP says that men fall victim to these scams more often, but that women are more likely to report the scam.
Profile Warning Signs
The profiles of online dating scammers can exhibit some clear signs that something is off—you just need to know what to look for. Most scammers choose victims that are older than they are, for example, so if someone who is significantly younger than you says that they’re interested, it could be cause for concern. Of course, just because someone is younger doesn’t mean that they’re a scammer; it’s just something to keep in mind.
Scammers also often list themselves as widowed (especially with a child), self-employed, or working overseas. They might also say that they live near you, but that they’re away; they could be in another country on a trip or for work, but they’ll almost certainly be somewhere far away where you can’t meet them.
The photos used by scammers can also clue you in that something is off. If someone sends you a message and says they’d like to get to know you, save a copy of their picture and use Google’s reverse image search to see if anyone has posted about that photo being used for a scam. If that image shows up on other profiles with different names, you should be suspicious. It’s possible that it’s someone looking for an affair on a dating site, but it could also be a scammer. If you receive other photos, and anything seems off, be wary.
Early Warning Signs to Watch For
Even if someone’s profile looks legit, there are other signs to keep an eye out for, especially during the beginning of your communication. For example, scammers will often ask you to communicate with them outside of the dating site—via email, through Facebook, or even on Skype. These methods give them better access to you and can help them gather additional information that they can use to con you.
Don’t fall for it: there’s nothing wrong with staying in touch via the dating site.
Scammers are good at being charming and saying all the right things—and they start it fast. They have a lot of victims to get through, so they’re going to try to move things along as quickly as possible. They’ll hit you with the full force of their charm; they’ll say sweet things, compliment you a lot, and talk about how perfect you are for each other within the first couple weeks. Think about if you would find it strange for someone to be acting like this if you just met in real life. If someone was expressing over-the-top love and passion within a couple weeks, you’d be worried.
Early on in a courting relationship, you’ll probably ask a lot of questions, even basic ones like “how tall are you?” or “what do you do for a living?” If the person you’re talking to is avoiding these basic questions, that should be a big red flag. Many scammers will be prepared to answer these and even more complicated questions, but if you can’t get answers from a suitor, you should be suspicious.
While there are online dating scammers from all over the world, a significant number of them come from non-English-first-language countries, which means that sometimes there will be communicative markers that indicate your suitor isn’t who they say they are. If their profile says they’ve lived in Ohio their entire lives, but they’re using non-standard English, or have notably poor grammar, that could be a warning sign (think of the kinds of errors you’d see in a Nigerian scam email).
This can become especially evident in an email conversation or on the phone, where they need to spontaneously come up with things to say. This is difficult for non-native speakers. Obviously, there are plenty of non-native speakers out there who are sincerely looking for a relationship, and they could very well be from heritage speaking communities in the United State or Britain. This isn’t a dead giveaway, but it’s something to watch out for.
Not Being Able to Meet
While the British scammer mentioned in the introduction to this article met his victims in person, most scammers will avoid face-to-face meetings at all costs. Even if they say they live near you, they’ll say they’re out of town and won’t be able to meet. They might even set up a time to meet and then say they were held up by something else.
Of course, some people are just shy or are nervous about meeting people that they’ve met online—this isn’t anything out of the ordinary (it’s also possible that they’re trying to avoid getting caught by a spouse). However, repeated excuses at the last minute are a definite warning sign. Some scammers will use similar excuses for avoiding phone conversations, though many will talk to you on the phone before reeling you in for the scam.
Asking for Financial Information or Money
This is the big one. If the person you’re talking to is who they say they are, they almost certainly will not ask you for money or financial details. “How much money do you make?” is not a question that a sincere person is likely to ask on a first date. Asking for any other financial information—where you bank, anything about your credit cards, how much you have in savings—should be a big warning sign. Online dating websites aren’t the most secure, so sharing any sensitive information might be a bad idea anyway.
If they ask you for money, run. That’s almost a sure sign that you’re talking to a scammer. The most common reasons that they give for needing money are not being able to afford a passport, visa, other travel documents, or plane tickets (often to come see you); an emergency stay in the hospital that requires a huge sum of money; getting robbed while traveling; or not being able to access their money from abroad. There’s a huge variety of reasons that you could get. The point isn’t that the reason for needing money is strange—it’s that they’re asking you for money at all.
That just shouldn’t happen.
Because the profiles that scammers create often say that they make a lot of money, many people get caught by thinking that they’ll be reimbursed after loaning their suitor the money. A decent salary may look like a sign of trustworthiness, but remember that you don’t have any proof that this person is who they say they are, especially if you haven’t met.
Trust Your Instincts
Most of the time, you can spot an online dating scammer by trusting your instincts—if something looks off, be extra wary. It all seems obvious in hindsight, but people want to believe in other people, and that can get in the way of our better judgment. Always be on the lookout, and be extra wary when you meet new people online. If you have suspicions, don’t ignore them. Taking these precautions can help save you thousands of dollars—and even more heartbreak.
Have you been the victim of an online romance scam? Are the signs obvious in hindsight? What tipped you off to the scam? Share in the comments below!
Image credits: internet criminal by solar22 via Shutterstock, The Telegraph, Goodluz via Shutterstock.com, wavebreakmedia via Shutterstock.com, Orange Line Media via Shuterstock.com, Ajaptp via Shutterstock.com, ArtFamily via Shutterstock.com.